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Twelve ayatanas

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Twelve ayatanas (Skt. dvadaśa āyatana; Pali. dvādas’ āyatanāni), or twelve sense bases or twelve sense spheres, are defined within the Abhidharma teachings as sense-fields which serve as the bases for the production of consciousness.[1]

The twelve ayatanas (or sense bases) consist of:

  • six external sense bases (sights, sounds, smells, etc.)
  • six internal sense bases (eye base, ear base, nose base, etc.)

Thus, there are six internal-external (base-object) pairs of sense bases:

  • eye base + visible objects
  • ear base + sound
  • nose base + odor
  • tongue base + taste
  • body base + touch
  • mind base + mental objects

Buddhism identifies six "senses" as opposed to the Western identification of five.[2][3] In Buddhism, "mind" denotes an internal sense organ which interacts with sense objects that include sense impressions, feelings, perceptions and volition.[4]


It is said that ayatana is the door through which experience enters.

  • Aya means arrival and
  • Tana means that which furthers or extends or goes

In Tibetan

  • kyé means to be born or to arrive.
  • ché (or chépa) means extending or going further

What is arriving and then spreading is sensation, which is differentiated in six ways.[5]

Alternate translations

  • twelve sense fields (Buswell)[6]
  • twelve bases of cognition (Buswell)[7]
  • twelve sources of consciousness
  • twelve sense-fields
  • twelve sense spheres
  • twelve sense sources
  • twelve sensory activity fields
  • twelve sense bases (Bodhi)[8]
  • twelve sense-media (Thanissaro)

External sense bases

The six external sense bases (Pali: bāhirāni āyatanāni) are also known as "sense objects" or "domains"[9]. They are:

  • sights (Skt. rūpa-āyatana; Wyl. gzugs kyi skye mched)
  • sounds (Skt.śabda-āyatana; Wyl. sgra'i skye mched)
  • smells (Skt. gandha-āyatana; Wyl. dri'i skye mched)
  • tastes (Skt. rasa-āyatana; Wyl. ro'i skye mched)
  • textures (Skt. spraṣṭavya-āyatana; Wyl. reg bya'i skye mched)
  • mental objects' (Skt. dharma-āyatana; Wyl. chos kyi skye mched)

Rupa-ayatana (visible objects)

Rupa-ayatana is translated as "visible objects" or "sights". In the context of the sense bases, rūpa-ayatana refers to visual objects (or objects knowable by the eye through light). This should not be confused with the the term rupa-skandha in the context of the five skandhas, which refers to all material objects, both of the world and the body.

Thus, when comparing these two uses of rūpa, the rupa aggregate (rupa-skandha) includes the rūpa sense-object (rupa-ayatana) as well as the four other material sense-objects (sound, odor, taste and touch).

Dharma-ayatana (mental objects)

Dharma-ayatana is translated here as "mental objects". Other frequently seen translations include

  • "mental phenomena" (e.g., Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1135ff.),
  • "thoughts,"
  • "ideas" (e.g., Thanissaro, 2001a) and
  • "contents of the mind" (VRI, 1996, p. 39)

Internal sense bases

The internal sense bases are:

  • eye base (Skt. cakṣur-āyatana; Wyl. mig gi skye mched)
  • ear base (Skt. śrotra-āyatana; Wyl. rna ba'i skye mched)
  • nose base' (Skt. ghrāṇa-āyatana; Wyl. sna'i skye mched)
  • tongue base (Skt. jihva-āyatana; Wyl. lce'i skye mched)
  • body base (Skt.kāya-āyatana; Wyl. lus kyi skye mched)
  • mind base (Skt. mano-āyatana; Wyl. yid kyi skye mched)[10]

The internal sense bases (Pali: ajjhattikāni āyatanāni) are also known as, "organs", "gates", "doors", "powers" or "roots"[11])

These internal sense bases are not the gross organs themselves (e.g., the eye, ear, etc.), but subtle matter within them.[12]

Mano-ayatana (mind base)

In regards to the sixth internal sense base of mind (mano), Pali subcommentaries (attributed to Dhammapāla Thera) distinguish between consciousness arising from the five physical sense bases and that arising from the the "life-continuum" or "unconscious mind" (bhavaṅga-mana):[13]

"Of the consciousness or mind aggregate included in a course of cognition of eye-consciousness, just the eye-base [not the mind-base] is the 'door' of origin, and the [external sense] base of the material form is the visible object. So it is in the case of the others [that is, the ear, nose, tongue and body sense bases]. But of the sixth sense-base the part of the mind base called the life-continuum, the unconscious mind, is the 'door' of origin...."[14]

Relation to the four noble truths

In the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha identifies that the origin of suffering (Pali, Skt.: dukkha) is craving (Pali: taṇhā; Skt.: tṛṣṇā). In the chain of Dependent Origination, the Buddha identifies that craving arises from sensations that result from contact at the six sense bases. Therefore, to overcome craving and its resultant suffering, one should develop restraint of and insight into the sense bases.[15]

Within the Pali suttas

Throughout the Pali Canon, the sense bases are referenced in hundreds of discourses. The greatest concentration of discourses related to the sense bases is in the Connected Discourses, chapter 35, entitled "The Book of the Six Sense Bases" (Saḷāyatana-vagga).[16] In these diverse discourses, the sense bases are contextualized in different ways. Some examples follow.

"Six Sextets" discourse

Figure 1: The Pali Canon's Six Sextets:
  sense bases  
<–> "external"
  1. The six internal sense bases are the eye, ear,
    nose, tongue, body & mind.
  2. The six external sense bases are visible forms,
    sound, odor, flavors, touch & mental objects.
  3. Sense-specific consciousness arises dependent
    on an internal & an external sense base.
  4. Contact is the meeting of an internal sense
    base, external sense base & consciousness.
  5. Feeling is dependent on contact.
  6. Craving is dependent on feeling.
 Source: MN 148 (Thanissaro, 1998)    diagram details

The sense bases include two sets of six: six sense organs (or internal sense bases) and six sense objects (or external sense bases). Based on these six pairs of sense bases, a number of mental factors arise. Thus, for instance, when an ear and sound are present, the associated consciousness (Pali: viññāṇa) arises. The arising of these three elements (dhātu) – ear, sound and ear-related consciousness – lead to what is known as "contact" (phassa) which in turn causes a pleasant or unpleasant or neutral "feeling" or "sensation" (vedanā) to arise. It is from such a feeling that "craving" (taṇhā) arises. (See Figure 1.)

Such an enumeration can be found, for instance, in the "Six Sextets" discourse (Chachakka Sutta, MN 148), where the "six sextets" (six sense organs, six sense objects, six sense-specific types of consciousness, six sense-specific types of contact, six sense-specific types of sensation and six sense-specific types of craving) are examined and found to be empty of self.[17]

"The All" discourse

In a discourse entitled, "The All" (SN 35.23), the Buddha states that there is no "all" outside of the six pairs of sense bases.[18] In the next codified discourse (SN 35.24), the Buddha elaborates that the All includes the first five aforementioned sextets (sense organs, objects, consciousness, contact and sensations).[19] References to the All can be found in a number of subsequent discourses.[20] In addition, the Abhidhamma and post-canonical Pali literature further conceptualize the sense bases as a means for classifying all factors of existence.[21]

"The Vipers" discourse

In "The Vipers" discourse (Asivisa Sutta, SN 35.197), the Buddha likens the internal sense bases to an "empty village" and the external sense bases to "village-plundering bandits." Using this metaphor, the Buddha characterizes the "empty"[22] sense organs as being "attacked by agreeable & disagreeable" sense objects.[23]

Elsewhere in the same collection of discourses (SN 35.191), the Buddha's disciple Sariputta clarifies that the actual suffering associated with sense organs and sense objects is not inherent to these sense bases but is due to the "fetters" (here identified as "desire and lust") that arise when there is contact between a sense organ and sense object.[24]

"The Fire Sermon"

In the "Fire Sermon" (Adittapariyaya Sutta, SN 35.28), delivered several months after the Buddha's awakening, the Buddha describes all sense bases and related mental processes in the following manner:

"Monks, the All is aflame. What All is aflame? The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. Contact at the eye is aflame. And whatever there is that arises in dependence on contact at the eye – experienced as pleasure, pain or neither-pleasure-nor-pain – that too is aflame. Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging & death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs."[25]

"Abandoning the Fetters" discourse

The Buddha taught that, in order to escape the dangers of the sense bases, one must be able to apprehend the sense bases without defilement. In "Abandoning the Fetters" (SN 35.54), the Buddha states that one abandons the fetters "when one knows and sees ... as impermanent" (Pali: anicca) the six sense organs, objects, sense-consciousness, contact and sensations.[26] Similarly, in "Uprooting the Fetters" (SN 35.55), the Buddha states that one uproots the fetters "when one knows and sees ... as nonself" (anatta) the aforementioned five sextets.[27]

To foster this type of penetrative knowing and seeing and the resultant release from suffering, in the Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10) the Buddha instructs monks to meditate on the sense bases and the dependently arising fetters as follows:

"How, O bhikkhus, does a bhikkhu live contemplating mental object in the mental objects of the six internal and the six external sense-bases?
"Here, O bhikkhus, a bhikkhu understands the eye and material forms and the fetter that arises dependent on both (eye and forms); he understands how the arising of the non-arisen fetter comes to be; he understands how the abandoning of the arisen fetter comes to be; and he understands how the non-arising in the future of the abandoned fetter comes to be. [In a similar manner:] He understands the ear and sounds ... the organ of smell and odors ... the organ of taste and flavors ... the organ of touch and tactual objects ... the consciousness and mental objects....
"Thus he lives contemplating mental object in mental objects ... and clings to naught in the world."[28]

Within the Pali commentaries

The Vimuttimagga, the Visuddhimagga, and associated Pali commentaries[29] and subcommentaries all contribute to traditional knowledge about the sense bases.

Explanation from the Vimuttimagga

When the Buddha speaks of "understanding" the eye, ear, nose, tongue and body, what is meant?

According to the Vimuttimagga, the sense organs can be understood in terms of the object sensed, the consciousness aroused, the underlying "sensory matter," and an associated primary or derived element that is present "in excess."[30] These characteristics are summarized in the table below.

in excess
eye visual objects visual consciousness "...the three small fleshy discs round the pupil, and the white and black of the eye-ball that is in five layers of flesh, blood, wind, phlegm and serum, is half a poppy-seed in size, is like the head of a louseling...." heat (fire)
ear sounds auditory consciousness "...in the interior of the two ear-holes, is fringed by tawny hair, is dependent on the membrane, is like the stem of a blue-green bean...." space[31]
nose odors olfactory consciousness "...in the interior of the nose, where the three meet, is dependent on one small opening, is like a Koviḷāra (flower in shape)...." air
tongue tastes gustatory consciousness "...two-finger breadths in size, is in shape like a blue lotus, is located in the flesh of the tongue...." water
body tangibles tactual consciousness "...in the entire body, excepting the hair of the body and the head, nails teeth and other insensitive parts...." earth
Table 1. The Vimuttimagga's characterization of sense organs.[32]

Explanation from the Visuddhimagga

The Visuddhimagga describes the sense organs in terms of the following four factors:

  • characteristic or sign (lakkhaṇa)
  • function or "taste" (rasa)
  • manifestation (paccupaṭṭhāna)
  • proximate cause (padaṭṭhāna)

Thus, for instance, it describes the eye as follows:

Herein, the eye's characteristic is sensitivity of primary elements that is ready for the impact of visible data; or its characteristic is sensitivity of primary elements originated by kamma sourcing from desire to see. Its function is to pick up [an object] among visible data. It is manifested as the footing of eye-consciousness. Its proximate cause is primary elements born of kamma sourcing from desire to see.[33]

In the Visuddhimagga, Buddhaghosa identifies knowing about the sense bases as part of the "soil" of liberating wisdom. Other components of this "soil" include the aggregates, the faculties, the Four Noble Truths and Dependent Origination.[34]

Relation to other modes of analysis

The abhidharma tradition presents multiple modes with which to analyze the components of an individual and their relationship to the world. The three most common methods of investigation are:

  • five skandhas (aggregates, heaps, etc.)
  • twelve ayatanas
  • eighteen dhatus (sources, etc)

Comparison with the eighteen dhatus

Bhikkhu Bodhi states:

The eighteen elements are obtained from the twelve bases by dividing the mind base into the seven elements of consciousness (see III, §21). In all other respects the bases and the elements are identical.[35]

Comparision with the five skandhas

See: Five_skandhas#Twelve_sense_bases

In the Pali language

The dhatus are expressed in the Pali langauge as follows:

Dvādas’ āyatanāni: cakkhāyatanaṃ, sotāyatanaṃ, ghānāyatanaṃ, jivhāyatanaṃ, kāyāyatanaṃ, manāyatanaṃ, rūpāyatanaṃ, saddāyatanaṃ, gandhāyatanaṃ, rasāyatanaṃ, phoṭṭhabbāyatanaṃ, dhammāyatanaṃ.[36]

Bhikkhu Bodhi translates these elements as follows:

The twelve sense bases are: (1) the eye base, (2) the ear base, (3) the nose base, (4) the tongue base, (5) the body base, (6) the mind base, (7) the visible form base, (8) the sound base, (9) the smell base, (10) the taste base, (11) the tangible base, (12) the mental-object base.[36]

See also

  • Heart Sutra - Mahayana text that shows the ayatanas in Mahayana discourse
  • Indriya - "faculties", which include a group of "six sensory faculties" similar to the six sense bases
  • Satipatthana Sutta - includes a meditation using sense bases as the meditative object
  • Five skandhas - a similar Buddhist construct
  • Twelve Nidanas - the chain of endless suffering of which the sense bases are the fifth link


  1. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. ayatana
  2. Hamilton (2001), p. 53, writes: "... six senses, including one relating to non-sensory mental activity, are recognized in Buddhism and other Indian schools of thought...."
  3. See also Pine 2004, pg. 101. Red Pine argues that this scheme probably predates Buddhism, because it has ten external members (ear, sound, nose, odor, tongue, taste, body, touch) corresponding to the single external skandha (form), and only two internal members (mind and thought) corresponding to the four internal skandhas.
  4. See, for instance, Bodhi (2000a), p. 288.
  5. Steven Goodman, Frogs in the Custard (out of print)
  6. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. ayatana
  7. Princeton Dict icon 166px.png Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. ayatana
  8. "Sense base" is used for instance by Bodhi (2000b) and Soma (1999). "Sense-media" is used by Thanissaro (e.g., cf. Thanissaro, 1998c). "Sense sphere" is used for instance by VRI (1996) and suggested by Rhys Davids & Stede (1921–5), p. 105.
  9. Pine 2004, pg. 103
  10. Translation of eye base, etc., is used by Bikkhu Bodhi; see Connected Discourses - Selections
  11. Pine 2004, pg. 102
  12. Tenzin Gyatso & Hopkins 2015, Introduction
  13. Regarding bhavaṅga being a primarily post-canonical concept, see Matthews (1995, p. 128) where he states for instance: "Bhavaṅga does not occur in the Sutta Pitaka, but its appearance in both the Dhammasagai and the Paṭṭhāna assured that it received much post-classical attention in the Theravāda." He further amplifies this in an endnote (p. 140, n. 34): "... [A]lthough bhavaṅga does appear in the Abhidhamma Piaka, it is not until the post-classical era that it receives much attention." Citing Ñāamoli and others, Matthews (1995, p. 123) defines the "classical age" as "ended about the 4th century A.D.," just prior to the "great age of commentaries."
  14. Soma (2003), p. 133. This excerpt is from the subcommentary to the Majjhima Nikāya, the Līnatthapakāsanā Tīkā.
  15. Bodhi (2005b), starting at time 50:00. Bodhi (2005b) references, for instance, Majjhima Nikaya Sutta No. 149, where the Buddha instructs:
    "...[K]nowing & seeing the eye as it actually is present, knowing & seeing [visible] forms... consciousness at the eye... contact at the eye as they actually are present, knowing & seeing whatever arises conditioned through contact at the eye – experienced as pleasure, pain, or neither-pleasure-nor-pain – as it actually is present, one is not infatuated with the eye... forms... consciousness at the eye... contact at the eye... whatever arises.... The craving that makes for further becoming – accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now this & now that – is abandoned by him. His bodily disturbances & mental disturbances are abandoned. His bodily torments & mental torments are abandoned. His bodily distresses & mental distresses are abandoned. He is sensitive both to ease of body & ease of awareness..." (Thanissaro, 1998c).
  16. For instance, in Bodhi (2000b) edition of the Samyutta Nikaya, this chapter alone has 248 discourses. The Rhys Davids & Stede (1921–25) entry for "Āyatana" (p. 105) also mentions other discourses in each of the Pali nikayas.
  17. Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi (2001), pp. 1129–36; and, Thanissaro (1998a).
  18. Bodhi (2000b), p. 1140; and, Thanissaro (2001b). According to Bodhi (2000b), p. 1399, n. 7, the Pali commentary regarding the Sabba Sutta states: "...[I]f one passes over the twelve sense bases, one cannot point out any real phenomenon." Also see Rhys Davids & Stede (1921–25), p. 680, "Sabba" entry where sabbaŋ is defined as "the (whole) world of sense-experience."
  19. Bodhi (2000b), p. 1140; and, Thanissaro (2001a).
  20. For instance, SN 35.25 through 35.29, including the famed "Fire Sermon" (SN 35.28).
  21. Bodhi (2000b), p. 1122.
  22. In the context of SN 35.197, the term "empty" might simply be meant to convey "passive." It could also be used in the Buddhist sense of self-less, as in anatta (see). In fact, in SN 35.85, the Buddha applies this latter notion of emptiness (suññata) to all internal and external sense bases (Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1163–64; and Thanissaro, 1997c).
  23. Bodhi (2000b), pp. 1237–1239 (where this discourse is identified as SN 35.238); Buddhaghosa (1999), p. 490 (where this discourse is identified as S.iv,175); and, Thanissaro (2004). Similarly, in the last sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya's Salayatana-samyutta, entitled "The Sheaf of Barley" (which Bodhi, 2000b, identifies as SN 35.248 and Thanissaro, 1998d, as SN 35.207), the Buddha describes the sense organs as "struck" or "thrashed" by "agreeable and disagreeable" sense objects (Bodhi, 2000b, pp. 1257–59; Thanissaro, 1998d).
  24. Bodhi (2000b), pp. 1230–1231 (where this discourse is identified as SN 35.232); and, Thanissaro (1997b).
  25. Thanissaro, 1993. For other references to the sense bases as "the All," see Thanissaro (2001b) and Thanissaro (2001a). The sense bases are "the All" insomuch that all we know of the world is known through the sense bases.
  26. Bodhi (2000b), p. 1148.
  27. Bodhi (2000b), p. 1148. For a correspondence between impermanence and nonself, see Three marks of existence.
  28. Soma (1999), section entitled, "The Six Internal and the Six External Sense-bases."
  29. In terms of the Pali commentaries, for instance, there is overlap between the Visuddhimagga and the commentary to the Dhammasangani, Atthasālinī (e.g., cf. Vsm. XIV,49 [Buddhaghosa, 1999, p. 446] and Asl. 310 [Rhys Davids, 1900, p. 178 n. 2]).
  30. In regards to defining the sense bases in terms of excess primary elements, the Visuddhimagga (Vsm. XIV, 42) is critical:
    "... Others say that the eye is sensitivity of those [primary elements] that have fire in excess, and that the ear, nose, tongue, and body are [sensitivity] of those [primary elements] that have [respectively] aperture, air, water and earth in excess. They should be asked to quote a sutta. They will certainly not find one." (Buddhaghosa, 1999, p. 444, para. 42.)
  31. Unlike the other elements in this column, "space" is not considered a "primary" element but is identified as "derived material" (that is, derived from the four primaries of earth, water, fire and air). The space element is characterized by: "what delimits matter is called the element of space" (Upatissa et al., 1995, pp. 238, 240).
  32. This table is based on Upatissa et al. (1995), pp. 238–240.
  33. Vsm. XIV, 37 (trans. Buddhaghosa, 1999, p. 443; square-bracketed text in original). The Pali (from the Burmese CSCD, retrieved 2008-04-16 from "VRI" at http://www.tipitaka.org/romn/cscd/e0102n.mul2.xml) associated with this passage is:
    Tattha rūpābhighātārahatappasādalakkhaṇaṃ daṭṭhukāmatānidānakammasamuṭṭhānabhūtappasādalakkhaṇaṃ vā cakkhu, rūpesu āviñchanarasaṃ, cakkhuviññāṇassa ādhārabhāvapaccupaṭṭhānaṃ, daṭṭhukāmatānidānakammajabhūtapadaṭṭhānaṃ.
  34. Buddhaghosa & Ñāamoli (1999), pp. 442–43.
  35. Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000a). A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: The Abhidhammattha Sangaha. Pariyatti Publishing. Kindle Edition. Section "The Eighteen Elements".
  36. 36.0 36.1 Bodhi (2000a), Section "The Twelve Sense Bases"


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